This is part two of a two-part post. In this part, I try to resolve the worry raised in the previous post for Locke’s view that moral rules are never self-evident, and thus, always demand explanation/justification.
In the previous post, I outlined a worry for Locke’s stance on moral rules in Essay 1.3.4. Locke’s position is that no moral rules are self-evident, and so all moral rules stand in need of derivation or deduction. The worry that I presented was that it seems we can derive moral rules only from the conjunction of a) a prior moral rule, and b) a separate premise that establishes the derived rule as an instance or sub-category of the former.
In the comments on the first part of this post, Antonia LoLordo pressed me on one avenue for avoiding this worry: why think that the deriving the target rule requires a prior or more general moral rule? After all, some of the things that Locke says seem to suggest that morality requires a lawmaker, lawmaking requires the power of punishment and reward, and thus, morality winds up derivative on prudence. The prudential rule, “One should always act in the way that maximizes their own expected happiness”, combined with the claim that the way to maximize your own happiness is to obey God’s desires/instructions/laws, would be a fine derivation, and the rule that one should obey God is the moral rule we’re interested in. My reply to Antonia was two-pronged. On the one hand, we have to ask, what makes a proposed rule moral vs. prudential in the first place. We could either maintain that the moral vs. prudential character of a rule is determined by what the rule says, or we could maintain that “should” is ambiguous between a prudential relation, a moral relation, (and likely other relations), so that for a given sentence, like, “One should act in one’s own best interests” there is a moral reading of the rule, a prudential reading of the rule, etc. If we go with the latter option, then it looks like we could only derive the rule “Morally speaking, one should obey God’s law” from the rule, “Morally speaking, one should do whatever is one’s own best interests” and the claim that obeying God’s law is in one’s own best interests, so we are still stuck with moral rules on both ends. If we go with the former option, there is a mysterious question about why the former is a rule of prudence, while the latter is a rule of morality, and crucially, what makes the proposed derivation any good?
The second prong of my reply pertains to a deeper issue. Locke seems to be writing the section as though “practical principle” and “moral rule” are roughly equivalent. After all, his argument is supposed to establish that there are no innate practical principles. The fact that no moral rule is self-evident only bears on that conclusion if we take “moral rule” to encompass any practical principles. For if some practical principle is self-evident (like: “one should do whatever maximizes one’s own happiness”), then Locke’s argument about moral rules hasn’t done anything to make the case that there are no innate practical principles.
There is another way of taking LoLordo’s question, which I think winds up looking more charitable, but I can’t articulate that way of reading her question until after I lay out the approach for resolving the worry that I have in mind. So, I’ll do that now: I think the real issue is not whether we can derive a moral rule from some non-moral rule, but whether we can we derive a moral rule from things that aren’t rules at all. Now, I didn’t give a real argument for the claim that all moral rules will be explained by appeal to prior moral rules. But to really resolve the worry, we will want a positive story about moral explanation that diverges from this picture in the relevant way. Also, we’ll want to figure out how amenable to such a story Locke would be, independent of the need for it as a resolution to this worry.
So, the rest of this post concerns two complementary lines of thought. The first emerges from the fact that I have assumed, but have not really argued for, the claim that all explanations of moral rules of the form “One should do F” take the form: “One should do F because doing F is a way of doing G, and one should do G”. If that assumption is correct, then, to avoid skepticism, circularity, or infinite regress, we would require some unexplained/unexplainable moral rules. And Locke seems to have ruled that out, in virtue of saying that every moral rule is one against which we are capable of raising a legitimate demand for reason/explanation. The second is to focus on remarks against syllogism that Locke makes in 4.17.4, when giving his views on the nature of reasoning. In that section, Locke suggests that it is a mistake to understand human reasoning as governed by syllogisms. This line of reply involves the suggestion that the explanation “Because God, who has the power of eternal life and death, requires it of you” is neither a non-sequitur, nor is it omitting reference to an additional rule, but rather, is a perfectly good bit of reasoning, by Locke’s lights.
In his paper discussing Ralph Cudworth’s “authority” challenge to divine voluntarism in ethics, Mark Schroeder brings out a number of similar/related points to the ones I am raising here. Schroeder dubs the model of moral explanation I have been assuming as “The Standard Model of Normative Explanation.” In his words:
The explanation that X ought to do A because P follows the Standard Model just in case it works because there is (1) some further action B such that X ought to do B and (2) not just because P and (3) P explains why doing A is a way for X to do B.
Schroeder defines the “standard model theory” as the view that all normative explanations of the form “X ought to do A because P” follow the standard model. So, as should be clear from Schroeder’s statement of it, the only way to avoid a regress problem on the Standard Model is to have some statements of the form “X ought to do A” which are not explained/explainable. There have to be one or more ought claims that cannot be explained (through subsumption under a more basic/general ought claim, or any other way). To avoid the regress problem when we don’t limit ourselves to the standard model is to appeal to a different structure of moral explanation. Schroeder helpfully articulates an alternative to the standard model: the constitutive model. On this model, some explanations are given in terms of a reduction of ought claims to some other properties. So if I explain your obligation to do A on the constitutive model, I do not offer some antecedent obligation to do B, and tell you why doing A is a way of doing B. Rather, I give you an account of what it is to have an obligation. Here’s Schroeder again:
On this picture [i.e. the constitutive model], though many normative explanations may follow the Standard Model, Standard Model explanations eventually run out, and when they do, the only further explanation of why it is the case that someone ought to do something, is to point to what it is for it to be the case that she ought to do it, and to point out that this, in fact, holds.
So, it looks like this might be a way to help Locke avoid my worry. We can consider answers that work like Schroeder’s alternative model and see if this helps solve Locke’s problem. In fact, we can even consider what the original answer given by the Christian looks like on this alternative model of normative explanation. Recall C:
- C: [You should keep your compacts] because God (who has the power of eternal life and death) requires it of you.
Q’s question in reply to this above, presupposed that this answer implicitly committed C to another rule, “One should do what God requires of them”, which, combined with facts about what God requires of us, made it the case that keeping your compacts was a way of obeying that other rule. Schroeder’s alternative model is to say that C’s answer should really be understood as proposing that what it is for an action to be something that you should do, is for God (who has the power of eternal life and death) to require it of you. Does this help with Locke’s problem?
Structurally, it is clear that this helps. It gives us a clear path to go from a principle that is not a rule “What it is to be obligated to do something just is for God to require it of you”, to the moral rule in question. However, what is less clear is that this is the best way to understand C’s answer. Fortunately, nothing in the text we’ve been looking at requires us to take C’s answer in particular as going against the standard model. We focused on C’s answer before because the point was general: if all explanations work like we were taking C’s to work, there would be trouble. The point is this, there will be some rule, perhaps the rule, “one should do what God requires of them”, or perhaps the rule “one should do what is in one’s own best interest” which will have to be derived in this alternative way. Where if I ask, “why should I do X?” the answer will be, “Because that’s just what it is to be obligated.”
So, I think we have good reason to think that something like this approach could help Locke avoid the worry. But how plausible is it for us to read this into Locke’s thought?
This is where the text from 4.17.4 comes in. In these passages, Locke is harsh on the role of syllogisms in reasoning:
There is one thing more, which I shall desire to be considered concerning Reason; and that is, whether Syllogism, as is generally thought, be the proper instrument of it, and the usefullest way of exercising this Faculty. The Causes I have to doubt, are these. First, Because Syllogism serves our Reason, but in one only of the forementioned parts of it; and that is, to shew the connexion of the Proofs in any one instance, and no more: but in this, it is of no great use, since the Mind can perceive such Connexion where it really is, as easily, nay, perhaps, better without it. If we will observe the Actings of our own Minds, we shall find, that we reason best and clearest, when we only observe the connexion of the Proofs, without reducing our Thoughts to any Rule of Syllogism. And therefore we may take notice, that there are many Men that Reason exceeding clear and rightly, who know not how to make a Syllogism.
And then, a bit later, Locke gives an example of good reasoning that he thinks would be impaired by trying to recast it syllogistically, the conclusion that humans can determine themselves, from the starting point that humans shall be punished in the afterlife:
In the instance above mentioned, what is it shews the force of the Inference, and consequently the reasonableness of it, but a view of the connexion of all the intermediate Ideas that draw in the Conclusion, or Proposition inferr’d. v.g. Men shall be punished, — God the punisher, — just Punishment, — the Punished guilty — could have done otherwise — Freedom — self-determination, by which Chain of Ideas thus visibly link’d together in train, i.e. each intermediate Idea agreeing on each side with those two it is immediately placed between, the Ideas of Men and self-determination appear to be connected, i.e. this Proposition Men can determine themselves is drawn in, or inferr’d from this that they shall be punished in the other World. […] Now I ask whether the connexion of the Extremes be not more clearly seen in this simple and natural Disposition, than in the perplexed Repetitions, and jumble of five or six Syllogisms. I must beg Pardon for calling it Jumble, till some Body shall put these Ideas into so many Syllogisms, and then say, that they are less jumbled, and their connexion more visible, when they are transposed and repeated, and spun out to a greater length in artificial Forms; than in that short natural plain order, they are laid down in here, wherein every one may see it; and wherein they must be seen, before they can be put into a Train of Syllogisms.
Locke’s preference for non-syllogistic modes of reasoning is particularly helpful for this issue, because, in a sense, I’ve been framing the problem in terms of forms of explanation. I’ve been taking rules and explanations, irrespective of their truth, and examining questions that attend to the structure of those explanations. And that is all well and good for certain purposes. There’s nothing wrong with observing that if one should do B, and doing A is a way of doing B, then one should do B, and thus coming up with a sort of “explanation form” for certain rules. But that can’t be at the heart of our actual derivations of our most basic moral rules or practical principles, for Locke, because whether some argument “P, therefore one should do A” is any good won’t depend on the form of that argument for Locke, but rather, on the content of premise P.
To put this more concretely, the sort of moral explanations I’ve been focusing on are just as good with made up, implausible examples, because what matters is the form of the explanation: One should eat jellybeans every day, because one has a prior obligation to amuse the Greek God of candy, and eating jellybeans every day is a way to amuse the Greek god of candy. That explanation is clearly defective in terms of the truth of any of its premises, but is formally compelling. On the other hand, if one tries to explain a moral rule by examining the claim that being obligated to do something just is for it to amuse the Greek god of candy, that isn’t going to help us assess anything besides one very particular theory about the nature of obligation. As Locke’s example of non-syllogistic reasoning shows, according to him, the sort of reasoning we actually/normally engage in is a less formal, content based approach. So, Locke would have no reason to object to the idea that we examine our idea of obligation, and, from that, infer some basic practical principles. They are derived from our understanding of the nature of obligation, not from some antecedent rule.
So, this leads to the other way of understanding LoLordo’s question (and the end of my overly verbose post). Plausibly, for an action to be prudent just is for it to stand in the right relation to one’s prospects for future happiness or misery. That theoretical principle is what allows us to derive the practical principle that we should pursue our own happiness. This, combined with Locke’s commitment to the analyticity of certain claims about how obligation relates to punishment, make it plausible that Locke would think some principle about the relationship of obligation to our prospects for happiness and misery is a potentially self-evident, though not innate, theoretical principle. From this theoretical principle, and the aforementioned practical principle of prudence, would allow us to derive some basic practical principle of morality, without violating his requirement that all practical principles be derived/explained.